Petition protests Social Security office closures

A group of people representing union and retiree organizations on October 2 presented a petition with one-half million signatures to the Social Security Administration in Washington DC urging it to stop closing local offices and to restore the face-to-face services on which people applying for benefits depend.

Representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the Alliance for Retired Americans, and Social Security Works joined together to rally and present the petitions.

Support rallies were held in New York City, Oakland, and Columbus, Ohio.

Because of budget cuts, the Social Security Administration during the last three years has closed 80 local offices and 500 contact stations.

“Budget cuts have degraded the Social Security Administration’s ability to service millions of baby boomers who are becoming eligible for retirement,” said AFGE in a media statement about the event.

The union also warned that a strategic plan being proposed by the Social Security Administration “will drastically reduce community field offices and transition (services) to a web-centric customer service mode.”

The strategic plan, known as Vision 2025, has not been released yet, but in July, the agency released a report that made recommendations that will likely be included in the new strategic plan.

The report recommends reducing face-to-face contact between local Social Security workers and people seeking benefits by making the agency’s “virtual channels (e.g., online, phone, video conferencing) . . .  the primary means of means of service delivery.”

“Many people who rely on Social Security are the least likely to have knowledge, ability, and resources to use the Internet services,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE Council 220, at the Washington DC gathering. . . “People need experts to guide them.”

“It is outrageous that (the Social Security Administration) is closing offices when baby boomers are retiring in massive numbers and need the aid of experienced . . . staff to handle the rapidly rising number of new Social Security applications.”

In an opinion piece appearing in Government Executive, David Cox, president of AFGE, said that instead of closing offices and allowing staff to dwindle through attrition, the Social Security Administration needs to enhance face-to-face services even if it means fighting for more resources.

“We should not be afraid to fight for the resources needed to build a (comprehensive service delivery system),” he writes.

But fighting for adequate funding is not presented as an option in the Vision 2025 report.

The report, entitled Anticipating the Future: Developing a Vision and Strategic Plan for the Social Security Administration for 2025-2030, was written by a panel convened by the National Academy of Public Administration.

The panel was chaired by Jonathan Bruel, the former executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, a research and policy group funded by IBM whose purpose is to connect government agencies with services provided by businesses.

Also serving on the six-member panel was Alan Balutis, senior director of the Cisco Internet Business Group, and Jim Huse, senior advisor at HJ Steininger, a consulting firm that helps governments “implement challenging programs.”

The report acknowledges that the Social Security Administration “has excelled in providing personal service to its customers” but goes on to say that the agency’s emphasis on face-to-face services “seems to hamper its ability to identify and develop new opportunities to improve services (e.g., online delivery, self-service, and automation).”

According to the report, the Social Security Administration currently uses some technology to deliver some services, but acknowledges that there have been problems with it that require human intervention.

Of those applications that have been submitted online, 95 percent had information missing that required a call back by a Social Security worker.

The current web site has had other problems as well. For example, criminals set up fraudulent accounts through the MySocialSecurity web portal and benefits were paid to these phony accounts.

Despite these problems, the report recommends increasing the agency’s reliance on automation and notes “as more work becomes automated, it become less necessary to maintain the current (workforce) structure.”

But Cox argues that expanding a flawed automated system and over relying on automated tools will hurt the agency’s customers.

Doubling down on a complex, error-prone MySSA website will do nothing to make up for the rapidly growing service gap,” writes Cox. “According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do not even use the Internet. Nearly 60 percent lack a broadband connection. But the problems don’t end there. Even for those who do use the Internet, those who file for benefits online often mistakenly leave out important information that could result in a loss of benefits.”

One important service that automated systems can’t do well is informing people about benefits to which they are entitled but not aware of.

“Social Security representatives give people different options, something they haven’t considered,”  said Dianne Flemming, a Social Security recipient at the Washington DC rally. “(People) don’t know what type of benefits they are eligible for.”

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